The BackShop Journal

A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

They Stole My Land, But They Won't Steal My Soul

When people want to slaughter cattle, they drive them along until they get them to a corral, and then they slaughter them. So it was with us...

Standing Bear of the Poncas

They made us promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.

Red Cloud of the Oglala Sioux

Until the last few decades of the 20th century, the extermination of the American Indians by the white settlers and the United States government was either ignored, minimised or justified. In movies and other popular art forms Native Americans were mostly portrayed as savage, proud and exotic. They were considered "others" by white Americans, viewed as people who had to be conquered, destroyed and pitied in order for the great nation to expand and prosper. When the newcomers in the East realised they won't be able to keep the treaty and leave the land west of the Mississippi to the natives, they came up with a term designed to morally justify their avarice: Manifest Destiny.

The long-standing, stereotypical view of the "redskins" exposed in museum displays, captivity stories and black-and-white photos began to change in the second part of the twentieth century. The new respect toward Native Americans was caused mainly by the increased interest in Eastern religious practices and "New Age" spirituality, as well as the newfound Western awareness of the ecological crisis. Native Americans lived in harmony with nature and aspired to preserve it, and that was in tune with the sudden realisation about the extent of harm done to the environment. The neo-pagan practices connected to shamanism that appeared during the countercultural movement of the 1960s and 70s also turned the attention to Native American religions and their worship of nature and the Earth.

If one book that started the gradual change in the way people viewed Native Americans had to be singled out, it would be Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. This gripping account of the Wild West in the last few decades of the 19th century masterfully describes the gradual but relentless conquest of the new territories west of the Mississippi by land-hungry and gold-hungry settlers. When the buffalo were hunted and killed off by the whites, the Indians' major source of food and clothing was lost, and they were forced to settle near army forts and the so-called Indian agencies. There they were given scanty rations of food and clothing. The renegades, who did not want to be forced into corrals like cattle, were relentlessly pursued and slaughtered. The survivors of those men hunts and infectious diseases caused by malnutrition and germs brought from Europe were then confined to patches of land called Indian reservations. Thus "the manifest destiny" decimated the Native American population and permanently obliterated their lifestyle and culture.

Continuity and Communality

The Native American way of life was foreign to European-Americans, and they were looked upon as outlaws if not willing to be subjugated, and childish or insane if they did. Since they were mostly deemed incapable of being assimilated, the reservations they were forced to occupy represented sort of prisons or asylums. The feeling of superiority and uncompromising desire to make the natives of occupied lands conform to European values and lifestyle was famously described in Edward Said's Orientalism, which became the basis of the modern post-colonial studies, but at the time not even the most tolerant white Americans were quite aware of the prejudice and bigotry toward the members of the red race. If one had to point out the principle characteristics of Native Americans that mostly differed from the "civilised" newcomers, it would be their lack of private property and their communal lifestyle, which frontally clashed with the newcomers' pronounced individualism. The main features of the Native American lifestyle was continuity and communality. Continuity represented the unchanged way of life transmitted from one generation to the next through storytelling, songs and rituals, and communality was reflected in their collective consciousness expressed through sharing and feeling of belonging to one's tribe. Needless to say, the land, made by the Great Spirit for his people, did not belong to any particular individual in their view.

When one looks back at the motivation behind the robbery of the Indians' land accompanied by an utter disregard and disdain for their culture and their way of life, two forces stand out. The first one was the settlers' greed. The representatives of the US government would sign a treaty with mostly benevolent Indian tribes giving them certain territory, but a desire to make money by selling land and by exploiting the mineral-rich and timber-abundant mountains and valleys made them subsequently disregard the agreement. Through intimidation, deception or brute force they would then make the natives concede new lands. By exterminating their source of subsistence, the numerous buffalo herds and wild game, they starved the native population and bullied them into submission. Finally, they would force them to march hundreds of miles to desolate areas designated for Indian reservation, where they would massively die of malnutrition, disease and heartache.

The second driving force in the process was the white man's hubris. Without any recorded exception, they felt superior to the local population. Moreover, most newcomers did not consider the natives much better than animals. They wanted the Native American assimilated or dead. "The whites were always trying to make the Indians give up their life and live like white men - go to farming, work hard and do as they did - and the Indians did not know how to do that, and did not want to anyway", Wamditanka (Big Eagle) of the Santee Sioux once said. The natives couldn't speak or read English, and they had no one to speak for them. The greedy, presumptuous white settlers told their side of the story, and the governors of western territories and decision-making politicians in Washington believed them. "The whites told one side. Told it to please themselves. Told much that is not true. Only his own best deeds, only the worst deeds of the Indians, has the white man told," Yellow Wolf of the Nez Percé asserted. Through lies and slander, the retaliation and defense of the Indians was usually described as assault, and used as a pretext for arrest and then either execution or imprisonment. This continued throughout the second part of the 19th century, until all the natives were finally confined to small areas of arid land within their once vast, rich and beautiful country.

Sweat Lodge and the Little Bighorn

My interest in Native Americans started in childhood. As a kid I was fascinated by their culture I encountered in films and graphic novels. I knew the names and biographies of Coshise, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse well, and played with their dolls and plastic figurines. The toys of Buffalo Bill, Billy the Kid and other cowboys, which I also had, never attracted me as much. I remember that my favourite tribe were the Sioux, and my brother's the Apache. It is interesting that the first trip to the Western United States I took was to Wyoming, and my brother's to Arizona. In college, I took a Native Spirituality class, taught by a medicine man of two tribes, who did not look Indian, but claimed to be one, at least partly. He also had a PhD in psychology. We read a few books, of which I still have one on the Lakota society. We learned about the vision mountain and the sun dance. We traveled to the professor's huge estate in South Carolina and went through the pipe-smoking and sweat-lodge ceremonies several times.

In the 1990s, the New Age movement was really big in the United States, and books and gadgets related to Native American spirituality, like dream-catchers and the immediately recognisable arts and crafts sold in bookstores and at local pow-wow festivals, were very popular. There was also an increased awareness of the global warming and the ecological crisis, and Native Americans' appreciation and respect for nature seemed like a good example and a way out of the tragic consequences of the industrial revolution and the irreversible pollution of the environment. When the Indians witnessed the white man's attitudes toward the wild game and nature for the first time, they were convinced Americans hated birds, animals and trees, Dee Brown records in his book.

In 2006, driving from Paradise Valley across Montana toward Denver, I stopped with my family at the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876), known to the Lakota as the Battle of the Greasy Grass, and commonly referred to as Custer's Last Stand. It was an armed engagement between combined forces of the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, against the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army, which tried to surprise the Native Americans with a quick attack. In one of the few big Indian victories, "Long Hair" General George Custer, who previously participated in several massacres of Native Americans, was among the first soldiers killed. There is a memorial with a museum built on one of the grassy knolls overlooking the stream after which the battle was named. Looking at the list of all the American soldiers killed in the battle, I was surprised to see many Slavic names, mostly Russian, beside the most numerous English and German ones. "The Blue Coats" also used Indian mercenaries from other tribes as trackers, and usually sent them as the vanguard, bullet fodder in the frontal attacks. Their names are not recorded.

The Rugged Individualist

American frontier has always lured the adventurous, the destitute, the risk-takers. American government has even distributed some areas of land to those who claimed it first, as during the famous Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. The self-reliant frontiersman has been idalised by Americans who have made him the classic American male hero: the rugged individualist exemplified by people like Daniel Boone or Davy Crockett, or the tough, confident gunfighters such as Jesse James or Wyatt Earp. The need for owning guns for protection in the lawless Wild West has turned into a tradition, now widely criticised by those who think that the sheer number of rifles and pistols leads to violence and mass murder, as opposed to those who defend it as an individual right and part of the American heritage. One of the reasons guns have become such an integral part of American frontier tradition is the real and imagined danger of the wild, insane, scalp-taking Indians.

Americans, as well as people of other nations who familiarised themselves with the Wild West through popular books and movies, have been fascinated by the American frontier. The books by James Fenimore Cooper that were later made into films, for example, influenced popular, romanticised images of the strong, fearless and resourceful frontiersman, and the stoic, crude yet proud "red man". The "Western" experience has also been glamorised in other, numerous stories and pictures that featured cowboy heroes fighting Indian villains. Little attention was given, however, to the tragic story of what really happened to the Native Americans. In recent decades, a lot has been done to reverse the negative image of the Indians, but very few people have seriously pondered upon the immense tragedy of the once proud and free people. It is not exaggerated to state that the prosperity of the United States of America was built upon the blood of the savagely slaughtered native population.

Svetozar Postic

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